Workers Are Safer at Work, But Not as Safe as They Could and Should Be

by Sidney Shapiro

April 27, 2015

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported that the occupational fatality rate of 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers for 2013 was the lowest reported rate since the BLS started using its current tracking methodology in 2006.  That’s good news, but we’ve got a very long way to go still. The simple truth is that workers are not as safe as they could and should be. Although the fatality rate is down, there were still 4,585 occupational fatalities in 2013. 

The principal method for making workers safer is regulation and enforcement by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration. While about 40 percent of the deaths resulted from motor vehicle-related accidents, which is outside of OSHA’s regulatory authority, OSHA has tried to address the job risks within its jurisdiction by targeting the most dangerous industries and imposing the maximum penalties in appropriate cases. No doubt these efforts have resulted in the reported fatality reductions. To do better, however, OSHA faces a number of challenges. 

First, budget cuts have handicapped OSHA enforcement efforts (see here at pp. 5-7). Second, Congress has capped the size of OSHA fines at levels that are so low they often do not create significant deterrence. (See here at p. 16 and here)  In particular, the maximum penalty is six months in jail if a worker dies due to a willful violation of workplace safety regulations (see here at p. 10).  Secondly, even if an employer knowingly violates a regulation and a worker dies as a result, the DOJ will likely refuse to prosecute because the investment of resources is not justified by the light penalty levied at the end of the process.

Third, the fatality rate for Hispanic workers increased in 2013, up to 3.9 deaths for every 100,000 workers, compared to the 2012 rate of 3.7 deaths.  This increase reflects the large percentage of Hispanic workers employed in dangerous occupations, particularly construction, and the lack of job and safety training in Spanish. OSHA is well aware of this difference, but its capacity to mount a special effort to protect minority workers is handicapped by the many demands on its time and resources.

Finally, there’s a huge caveat in the BLS statistics: They do not reflect the number of workers who die from occupational diseases. Estimates of annual premature deaths from occupational disease range from 50,000 to 200,000 per year (see here and here) Even if the number is lower than 50,000, the number of premature deaths from occupational disease far exceeds the number from injuries.  Yet, OSHA has been nearly paralyzed in its efforts to promulgate new regulations to protect workers against dangerous chemicals or other hazards that lead to fatal illnesses.  There are a number of reasons for this failure, which CPR scholars and I have discussed previously.  For now, occupational disease remains the bad news for workers even as the number of fatalities from injuries goes down.

Most of us do not risk our lives in our effort to earn a living.  The goal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act is to make that true for all workers in the United States.  The latest BLS statistics indicate workplaces are getting safer, but workers are not as safe as they could and should be. 


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Sidney A. Shapiro holds the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at the Wake Forest University School of Law and is the Associate Dean for Research and Development. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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